Dan Mullen said after the game what I tweeted sometime around the third quarter: Mississippi State’s 38-13 loss to Texas A&M was the worst game the Bulldogs have played since Mullen got to town.
There’s not much sugar-coating to be done. The game was, in a word, awful for MSU.
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There weren’t a ton of positive highlights for State, however, as Mullen said after the game.
And the head coach took full responsibility for it. Ask him anything after the game, and he gave a one-sentence answer saying he and the coaching staff were the ones to blame. They didn’t prepare the players right, they didn’t motivate them properly, etc.
Often, coaches say things like that so as not to speak ill of their team. In this case, I think Mullen is right. He’s being honest. There were plenty of mistakes by players on the field, but it seemed to be a poor coaching effort by what has typically been a smart and organized staff.
Someone I talked to after the game made a good point on the motivation end of the conversation, though. Through the first seven games of MSU’s undefeated start, the Bulldogs never, really, had to be 100 percent motivated. And they never really appeared to be. I often said here that we had yet to see a complete game from MSU, but it didn’t matter because they were winning.
In back-to-back losses to Alabama and Texas A&M (two very good teams, and the best MSU has seen all season), the lack of motivation and preparedness from State was glaring. I wouldn’t call it coasting, but after a somewhat-laid back start, MSU has to find a way to get their edge back as they continue the gauntlet of SEC West teams, including top-10 LSU next Saturday night.
While this team is winning more, it’s personality is a far, far cry from Mullen’s 2009 version. His first team played smarter and harder than anyone they faced. It didn’t always result in a win, due largely to a talent gap, but those Bulldogs were always the most motivated and prepared team on the field.
The same goes for 2010, when Mullen and his staff got everything they could out of a talented and hungry team.
What happened to that fire? Where is the edge? Where are the well-executed and thought-out gameplans?
To borrow a coach-speak cliché, MSU needs to get back to its roots.
But, amidst the gloom of two rough losses, the sky isn’t falling. The world isn’t ending and life isn’t over. MSU is still 7-2, assured of a bowl game with three more matchups remaining and remains nationally-ranked.
The great philosopher Eddie Money once crooned, “Baby hold on to me. Whatever will be will be. The future is ours to see.”
The point: don’t give up. There are some real problems, but much of it is correctable, and MSU, along with its fans, are in it together.
Alright, on to my thoughts and observations from the game. Naturally, it was mostly bad for MSU, but certainly not all of it.
- The one thing, more than any other, which killed MSU was missed tackles. Mullen said as much in his Sunday teleconference, and that’s not coaching. Chris Wilson didn’t let Johnny Manziel slip through his arms. I can’t remember the last time I saw a team tackle that poorly, and my instinct is to think MSU’s players are better than that. Of course, the Aggies have some fast, slippery, talented dudes themselves.
On the plus side on defense: Cam Lawrence might have played harder than anyone on either team Saturday. Others may have played better, sure, but watching Lawrence as the game went on was bordering on inspiring. He looked angry, and he was everywhere, sideline-to-sideline, out-running his own teammates to get to the ball and make tackles. He was emotional, fast, smart and motivated. He was also clearly disappointed in the lethargy of his teammates, based on his body language.
- The secondary was a mixed bag, and this is a unit whose struggles I attribute more to coaching. When they were in possession, the coverage by MSU’s corners and safeties was nothing short of tremendous. A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had so many rushing yards largely because he had nowhere to throw. The weird thing was that when he did pass the ball beyond the line of scrimmage (he did most of his damage on short screens and passes behind the line), his receivers were wide open. At times, wide open almost doesn’t do justice as a description for just how much space these guys had. Missed assignments, uncovered receivers and entire defense looking confused seems, to me, like more of a coaching and scheme issue.
- The defensive line struggled as well, but again, I was a little confused by the game plan. For the second week in a row, the defense couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to commit to stopping the run or the pass and may have spread itself out too thin. As a result, MSU gave up 361 yards on 58 rushes to the Aggies. Ouch. At a certain point, you have to trust your talented and experienced secondary, and load the other seven or eight defenders in the box. I’m no coach, and A&M’s offense is tough to stop, but the damage could have been less.
- Speaking of lines, the offensive version wasn’t exactly sparkling, either, for the second week in a row. Tyler Russell has done a great job of getting the ball out and avoiding sacks, but the sacks-allowed stat is a bit misleading for MSU. Russell has been hit hard over-and-over lately, and this is two games in a row now MSU has been held under 100 total rushing yards. Before Alabama, LaDarius Perkins was averaging over 100 yards per game just on his own. I hesitate to think a personnel change would do any good, but something needs to improve there.
- Speaking of Russell and Perkins, I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of their backups, Dak Prescott and Nick Griffin. I don’t think either needs to be starting or even playing more than, say, 20-25 percent of the game, but both have done extremely well when given opportunities recently, and Griffin, a big back, has gotten better with each week. Between the two, they only had four rushes Saturday, averaging six yards per touch when either got the ball.
Russell’s numbers weren’t tremendous, completing 19-of-30 passes for 212 yards, one touchdown and once interception, but it seemed like different things could have been done to help that. The best ways to neutralize a strong pass rush are short passes over the middle, quick screens and running backs catching passes out of the backfield. However, MSU didn’t appear to feel the same. Like the defense, the players weren’t stellar on offense, but neither was the game plan.
- That said, three senior receivers did do very well when called on. Arceto Clark’s five catches for 64 yards were strong, and Chris Smith continued his emergence as something of a down-field threat, hauling in a 42-yarder Saturday. Chad Bumphis, who had been quiet lately, had four catches for 50 yards, and his touchdown was a pretty one. He juked about five Aggie defenders on his way to the endzone for the 28-yard score.
- One thing I noticed in the passing game, and it was a big difference between the two teams, was the way the routes set up the receivers. When Aggie pass-catchers caught the ball, they were in position to keep running and get yards after the catch. Conversely, MSU’s offensive often put receivers in spots where it was tough do much after getting the ball. Bumphis had to reverse directions after his catch to get around defenders.
- Not a ton to say on this, but quick question: what happened to the tight ends? We haven’t seen much action from any of them. I really thought sophomore Malcolm Johnson would be more involved by now.
- One of the bright spots: special teams. Mullen said after the game he wasn’t overly-impressed, but punter Baker Swedenburg continued his Ray Guy Award-deserving junior campaign, averaging 46 yards per punt, the field goal team blocked Texas A&M’s attempt before halftime, Jameon Lewis had a nice return to spark the offense on a kickoff and the Aggies only returned one kickoff of their own, going for just 18 yards. Special teams has been inconsistent this season, but Saturday was probably one of their best overall games.
- Oh, and the uniforms on both sides were tremendous. Good job, adidas.